The fine art of delayed gratification

My son Paddy tells me he wants Santa to bring him a Shrek costume. Paddy is four.

“A costume is really a Halloween kind of thing, don’t you think?” I say.

“Well, yes, but, I really want dat for Chrissmas,” he says, eyes wide, brows raised. Paddy’s diction is not always so good. He sometimes sounds like Dean Martin after a late set at the Sands.

“You know that Santa doesn’t bring us everything we ask for, right?” I raise my own eyebrows.

“But I’m a really, really good boy dis time,” he says.

“I know you are. Even so, he doesn’t bring us everything we ask for.”

“Yeah, I know dat,” he says, eyes suddenly narrow. “The fing is, I really want a Shrek costume.”

Putting aside why anyone would want to dress up like a giant green ogre for Christmas, I thought this little exchange a fine opportunity to introduce my boy to the concept of delayed gratification. Learning to delay gratification is the key to happiness they say. The earlier you master this, the better.

“I think we should shoot for Halloween on this one buddy. You can wait that long for something you really want, right?”

No kid wants to hear this. Not at Christmas time. I confess to not being very good at delaying gratification myself. Most of us are pretty bad at waiting for the things we want. This is true whether we want a big promotion, true love, or a Shrek costume. It’s just tough to wait.

I feel for Paddy, though, because I remember what it was like. As a kid, you want what you want when you want it. You need what you need when you need it. Waiting is hard.

For Catholics, Advent is all about waiting. It’s a hopeful waiting, but boy is it hard. It takes real effort. As Saint Paul said, we must train ourselves “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)

I don’t know about you, but I’d count myself lucky to live the ideals of temperance or justice or devotion, never mind all three. If I could do this even for a single day I’d dance a jig. Successfully pulling off the hat-trick over the course of an entire lifetime seems a tall order even for the holiest among us.

I recently heard a busy and popular writer describe his daily despair at having to respond to an inbox full of e-mails. Every day, he said, feels like putting a canoe into a stream. The water’s current immediately begins carrying you backward. You paddle all day against the current and, if you’re lucky, you end up back where you started.

The cultural current during Advent is strong. It pulls us all toward instant gratification and the empty trappings of what so many simply refer to as “the holiday season.” Black Friday. Wish lists. A great picture of the kids to put on a card. It’s so easy to get swept away by the current.

Don’t get me wrong. Trimming the tree and watching the kids open presents is part of what makes life worth living. But it’s not the main thing. Not even close.

Father George Rutler, who is the pastor of the Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue in New York City, recently wrote that “Advent is awkward because its mysteries of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are not the sort of things counter-tenors dressed as elves sing about.”

Taking our faith seriously in a world of instant gratification is awkward for sure. Focusing on God while everyone else is talking focusing on tablets and smartphones is bound to set us apart. But following Christ is no day at the mall. We endure the suffering and pain, the setbacks and turnarounds, because we know that our reward lies not in this world but in the next.

It’s a hard swim upstream. Especially during Advent. If we’re lucky, we’ll end up back were we started.

And if Paddy’s lucky, he’ll eat Christmas dinner dressed as a giant green ogre.

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